Antonio Gates is one of the best tight ends to ever play in the NFL, and one of the first in the modern trend of skilled athletes with basketball backgrounds to make the transition to football's most power forward-like position. But you already know this.
And if you've been doing any early fantasy football drafting or research, you've probably passed over Gates' name on the San Diego depth chart to focus on trendy third-year breakout candidate Ladarius Green. You're not alone, as Green is definitely getting all of the attention when it comes to San Diego tight ends this summer.
In fact, according to Fantasy Football Calculator, Green is going two full rounds ahead of Gates, and is the 13th tight end off the board, as opposed to Gates being the 16th.
Have we forgotten about Gates already? Has a 21 career reception backup driven us away from one of the most talented players ever to play tight end?
It seems as if some perspective is needed, so let's consider the facts regarding Antonio Gates as he enters the twilight of his career.
A Reminder of Gates' Relevance
Antonio Gates was still a very good tight end in 2013, despite not living up to his typically lofty expectations.
In 2013, Gates caught 77 passes on 114 targets, meaning he was certainly a large part of the San Diego offense despite his advancing age. And those 77 receptions led a Reception Net Expected Points (NEP) total of 63.58, which ranked ninth among tight ends, and was very close to the production of Greg Olsen and Charles Clay.
But the reason why many are doubting Gates' future is because this is a far cry from his dominance earlier in his career. Gates has three of the seven best tight end seasons since 2000 according to our Reception NEP metric, compared to only one top-seven appearance for Tony Gonzalez, another hoopster turned tight end.
So is Gates falling off of the proverbial cliff? Is his time in the NFL done? Let's consider and compare Gates' future against the late-career work of Gonzalez and another elite tight end, Shannon Sharpe.
The Precedent for Old, Elite Tight Ends
There have only been 22 tight ends to catch 40 or more passes in a season at age 33 or later. Gates is one of them, as he accomplished the feat last season. Of the remaining 21 instances, eight belong to either Gonzalez or Sharpe. So how did Gates' first foray into life after 33 compare to the post-33 seasons for the other two great tight ends?
Let's take a look from a Net Expected Points perspective.
|Name||Rec||Rec NEP||Targets||Rec NEP per Target||Success Rate|
For the first two players (Gonzalez and Sharpe), the data shown is the average of every season from age 33 forward, while Gates' data is simply his production last season. Gates saw the same volume of receptions and targets as the other great tight ends, but did so with less efficiency, production and consistency.
The efficiency refers to his NEP per target, which reveals that the average pass thrown to Gates didn't lead to the same sort of positive impact as the other two players made during the end of their careers. The production refers to Reception NEP, which is a raw measurement of the amount of Net Expected Points gained and lost by the player's receptions. And despite a similar amount of receptions to his peers, Gates didn't produce Reception NEP at the same clip. Consistency refers to Success Rate, which is a measure of how often a player gains positive NEP for his team on his receptions.
There's definitely cause for concern here, as the previously dominant Gates took a bit further of a fall after turning 33 than did either of the other tight ends. It's not a huge difference, and both Gonzalez and Sharpe's data above are multi-year averages while Gates' is a 16-game sample, but there may be signs that Gates' decline is coming more quickly than it did for either of the other elite 2000's "old" tight ends.
Gates the Sleeper?
But for fantasy purposes, we don't need Gates to be the elite, in-his-prime Antonio. Last year's top-10 NEP producer will do just fine.
That's the perspective that needs to be found here. Gates fell off in a big way in many of our metrics, and still finished as a top-10 tight end in a pass-happy NFL. Elite players don't often just fall from elite to useless, at least not at tight end, where Sharpe and Gonzalez prove that a not-quite-as-great level of production is very sustainable after the age of 33.
And based on his current value, if he's a top-12 tight end, he's a steal at his current price. Our fantasy football projections currently have Gates as the 10th-best tight end, so even if our numbers are a bit optimistic, he's still undervalued by fantasy owners in early drafts.
In fact, our projections predict a decline from last year (a small one, but a decline all the same) in receptions and yards, with a similar amount of touchdowns. A final line of 69 catches for 749 yards and 5 scores would be a fantastic season for a player like Kyle Rudolph or Delanie Walker, but it seems disappointing for a player like Gates.
But disappointment doesn't lose you any fantasy points. Just because this hero of the tight end position has lost a bit of his swagger, doesn't mean it's time to bail on him and ignore what he has left to offer. Ladarius Green is an intriguing prospect, but as our Brandon Gdula wrote, his breakout will have to wait, because one of the greatest of all time still has some gas left in the tank.